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December 16, 2019

The truth about development

Opinion

December 16, 2019

Pakistan has remained in deep economic and social distress for the better part of its national life. Explanations regarding our underdevelopment abound.

A lot of debate has gone into the role of colonization in our current problems. The explanations offered generally show two polar extremes: one puts all the blame on the colonizers, while the other explanation, which seems to be the current orthodoxy, considers our own failings as the sole reason behind our underdevelopment and backwardness. The truth arguably lies somewhere in the middle.

While it is not helpful to absolve ourselves and blame the colonizers for our problems, ignoring the role of colonization may well distort our understanding of the historical forces of colonization, thus making our way out of our problems more circuitous. As regards the question of colonialism, a well-orchestrated propaganda unleashed in the West sought to achieve two major objectives.

The first objective was to justify colonization, and the second was to instill a deep sense of inferiority and helplessness among the colonized people in relation to their colonizers. Colonizing an exceptionally large population could not have been possible without a change in the hearts and minds of the people. One of the propaganda tools to achieve these objectives was to blame the victims for their failings. The following lines will dispel this propaganda.

Suppose a person hits another person’s skull with a hammer and crushes it. A team of renowned doctors does a post-mortem and concludes that there was some serious manufacturing issue because of which the deceased could not withstand the hammer blow and his skull cracked. Ridiculous as this story may look like, the fact is that even more ridiculous myths of this nature have been made up and perpetuated to justify colonization.

Slavery remained a thorny issue for a very long time in the United States, which led to a bloody civil war. Slaves were not taught how to read and write since they were not considered capable of learning these skills. At the same time, their general inability to read and write was cited as proof of their poor learning skills and as a justification for their continued enslavement.

In his book ‘The Wealth and Poverty of Nations’, David Landes contrasts the characteristics of successfully industrialized nations — work, thrift, honesty, patience, and tenacity — with those of nonindustrial countries. Thus, the failure of the East to develop is attributed to the fact that people in the East are lazy, dishonest, extravagant spendthrifts, and lack the strength of character to persevere in the face of difficulties.

The fact is that successfully industrialized nations have created such conditions (political and economic instability and wars, to name a few) in large parts of the world which have systematically blocked the process of industrialization in these regions. When the culture of violence necessary for global domination led an unstable youngster, Adam Lanza, murder 20 children in a US school in cold blood, the nation mourned. No compassion or sympathy was expressed in the press for the death of over a million civilians, and damage to the life, limb and property of over 40 million people in Iraq.

Hernando de Soto propounds the influential thesis that secure property rights in the West led to development, and lack of them in the East led to its failure to develop. The fact is that property rights were largely secure in India before the onslaught of colonization. Secure and accurate systems for demarcating and settling property rights had functioned for centuries in India.

In a land grab typical of imperialists everywhere, the British ‘Resumption’ officers demanded documents of ownership from Indians, and declared them invalid at the slightest pretext, seizing all undocumented property for the British. This led to the closure of schools, hospitals, and indigenous social welfare organizations funded by trusts, throughout India.

Different authors have attributed our current poverty to our lack of creativity, inability to think rationally, authoritarian traditions, and our failure to have a South Asian version of the industrial revolution. Kennedy provides evidence for the strong industrial manufacturing sectors of India on the eve of colonization. In textiles, shipbuilding, steel industry, and glass blowing, among others, India was second to none.

However, the adoption of power looms in India posed a threat to British textiles — and were banned. This transformed India from an industrial country to an agricultural one and killed a large number of workers who had once earned comfortable livelihoods from industry. In a confidential note, William Bentinck, the viceroy of India stated that "the bones of the cotton weavers are bleaching the plains of India. The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce".

More baffling than what is being said about the cause of the development is what is not being said. In the early twentieth century, European powers had direct or indirect economic control of about 90 percent of global resources, which they ruthlessly exploited to the hilt, not being constrained by moral considerations. The imperialists became rich, and the colonies became poor in the process. Is this such a mystery?

None of the authors listed above mentioned this as a possible explanation of why rich countries are rich and why poor countries are poor. This is such a simple explanation that it is a mystery why no one refers to it, and the solitary work by Stavrianos (1981), which provides detailed documentation validating this thesis has been out of print for decades.

If, as it seems sufficiently plausible, under-development and development are opposite sides of the same coin, then remedies for under-development must be sought in radically different directions.

The writer is an assistant professor at the Department of Economics, COMSATS University, Lahore Campus.

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